This afternoon I learned via email that a long-time acquaintance I’d lost touch with is getting married. My immediate reaction was the one you’d expect upon hearing good news from a long-time acquaintance: hooray, congratulations, and good luck. Only after I’d had (and expressed) the expected reaction did I notice a tinge of discomfort, not at the fact that this particular acquaintance is getting married, but regarding the topic of marriage itself. After having blogged about Marital Math so recently, I wondered what was it about the engagement of a friend that made me feel a hint of discomfort?
After wondering a moment, I had my a-ha. In the three years since my ex-husband and I separated, none of my close friends has gotten married. The last time I went to a wedding, I was still married, albeit unhappily: fatefully, that wedding happened only a few months before my separation. In the intervening years, I haven’t yet experienced the mixed feelings I’m sure will come the first time I attend a wedding as a divorced woman, and that fact makes me feel slightly uncomfortable.
When you attend a wedding as a married person, the rest of the world lets you off the hook. Nobody asks you awkward questions about when you will be tying the knot; the worst that might happen is someone asking when you and your spouse are going to start a family. Intentionally childless, my ex-husband and I were practiced at side-stepping that impertinent question, so weddings weren’t particularly difficult to navigate even though there was always an awkward disconnect between the optimistic, pre-honeymoon happiness of the bride and groom and the settled resignation of our less-idyllic partnership.
When you attend a wedding as an unhappily married person, the rest of the world might let you off the hook, but you are painfully aware of the appearances you’re keeping. At one wedding my ex-husband and I attended, his duties as Best Man provided a socially acceptable reason for us to sit separately and rarely speak with one another; at another wedding, I had to feign a complete lack of coordination to explain why my then-husband and I wouldn’t dance. With most of the attention rightfully devoted to the bride and groom, it’s easy (albeit uncomfortable) to hide your own marital missteps. If someone noticed a tear in my eye while any of a number of couples pledged their undying love to one another, I could have easily said I was shedding tears of joy at their blessed union. Only I (and perhaps my ex-husband) knew I was lamenting the shattering of my long-ago newlywed hopes.
As a Senior Dharma Teacher in my Zen school, I am technically qualified to perform weddings, but I’ve never filed the appropriate legal paperwork. When I was unhappily married, I didn’t feel like I could honestly offer much wisdom, guidance, or hope to a younger, less-experienced couple; now that I’m happily divorced, I feel I have even less insight to offer, my learned-the-hard-way knowledge of what not to do seeming too cynical to share.
For me, the biggest tragedy of my divorce was the hope I feel it crushed: having deeply and truly believed I was committing to my one and only soul-mate ’til death do us part, now I know how deeply and truly a person can be wrong. In the three-year aftermath of separation and divorce, what I lament isn’t the ending of that relationship but the death of my own innocence. If I could have been so misguided about young love, what makes me think I’ll be any wiser now that I’m older? Was I simply deluded enough to mistake puppy love for the real thing, or is real love far less lasting than either romantics or happily married folks would have you believe?
In re-reading that post I wrote about the last wedding I attended, what strikes and surprises me is how I managed, even then, to sound as if I believed in marriage and the Great Vows it involves. Even with my heart broken with the reality of my own soon-to-fail marriage, I was able to salvage some sense of what marriage should be:
The message of any wedding and of practice in general, though, is that you try anyway. The thought that you can stay committed to one person for the rest of your life, through sickness and in health, for better and for worse, and in the face of personal and universal vicissitudes is absurdly preposterous: only someone young, idealistic, or in love would dream it possible. But from time immemorial, people have tried it anyway. It isn’t possible to save all beings from suffering–heck, most days I can’t even save myself from suffering–but I try anyway. One of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s favored sayings rings particularly true in this context: “Try, try, try, 10,000 years nonstop.” Or in another Zen turn of phrase, “Fall down six times, get up seven.” The impossibility of the task doesn’t keep us from trying; in fact, the impossibility of the task is the very reason why we try and why we vow to keep trying.
It strikes me as poignantly apt that weddings and the eternal bonds they celebrate are marked with flowers, themselves ephemeral. Although we know a bridal (or any) bouquet is doomed to die, we cherish flowers anyway, determined to appreciate whatever fragile beauty and fleeting fragrance they offer. Perhaps weddings should be celebrated with a similar kind of realistic romanticism. Death and the breaking of vows sometimes come prematurely, but in the meantime we decide to love and cherish as much as we can, while we can. If our decisions prove misguided, we return to an optimistic wish that hope, although capable of being crushed, ultimately can recover, adapt, and persevere until death.